June 29, 2007

Ken Auletta on the Murdochs and the Bancrofts, in The New Yorker

The New Yorker is stuffed with good stuff this week. There's an article about the folly - well, that's what I think it is - of fMRI-based lie detection. There's a neat piece on hedge-fund simulation at bargain prices that I didn't quite catch the first time around. Joan Acocella writes brilliantly about the Waughs. But the indispensable piece is Ken Auletta's "Promises, Promises," an fair-minded report of Rupert Murdoch's courtship of The Dow Jones Company. For a link to the story and my two-cents' worth of Friday Front, click below.

¶ Ken Auletta on the Murdochs and the Bancrofts, in The New Yorker.

May 06, 2007

Sole Ma Femme

Last Tuesday, I was feeling expansive and somewhat idle. I offered to make dinner for Kathleen if she would promise to be home by 10:15. "What would you like?" I asked. Wrong question. Kathleen's mind, her clients ought to be happy to note, was elsewhere.

I pulled down one of my most valuable cookbooks, Gourmet's Quick Kitchen (Condé Nast, 1996), a collection of recipes that yield two servings. Since I was cooking for Kathleen, I knew that I ought to do something with fish, and that the fish ought to be lean. Sole, for example. I found a recipe next to picture of an attractively sauced filet. Chopped olives were a distinct plus, and when I read the recipe and saw that it called for lemon juice, I was sold. Kathleen was going to love this. And indeed she did.

Sole with Citrus and Olive Sauce (Sole Ma Femme).

February 16, 2007

Governance, the Joke

My Front Page piece this week, about the nonsense that "corporate governance" has become, concerns a New Yorker article that isn't available online. Sorry! The issue has a two-week span, so you'll be able to find it long before it disappears.

Kathleen did a lot of work for Barclays Global Investors when they were setting up their ETFs. She has been very sorry to hear about Pattie Dunn's cancers.

February 08, 2007

Mr Deity

Yesterday, Joe posted a link to the Mr Deity videos at YouTube. Brian Keith Dalton's hugely funny shorts, which the Mr Deity site tells us are sketches for a half-hour comedy show, seem on the face of it to poke fun at Judeo-Christian beliefs. But that's not how I see it. I turn the telescope around and peer through the other end. What if Creation were the undertaking of some American corporation?

What if "God" were played by a dithering project manager, so beset by delusions of grandeur that the idea of accountability never crossed his mind? What if the Holy Spirit - "Larry" here - were the impatient, stressed-out, but ultimately sycophantic deputy actually responsible for making things happen? What if "Jesus" were an aimiable, team-playing lug who looked great with football greasepaint under his eyes? And what if Satan - "Lucy" - were the hysterical female executive, butting her head against the glass ceiling?

Now, go watch the clips again.

All four actors are superb, but there's something about Mr Dalton's high-pitched wheeze that's truly divine.

February 04, 2007

At My Kitchen Table: Food for Thought

On Thursday night, I went down to the West Village to have dinner with Édouard, of Sale Bête, and le copain. The latter, a very fit triathlete, expressed an understandable impatience with the idea of treating obesity as a disease, at least on today's broad scale. I asked him if he had read Michael Pollan's critique of nutritionism in the Sunday Times Magazine. He hadn't, and I did a very bad job of arguing its importance, in part because I couldn't decide which is worse, Americans' credulousness or their government's inaction. As a result, my comments were disorganized and inconsequent. I hope I've done better here.  

There's a line of thought in Mr Pollan's piece that I don't take up at Portico: the bad science inherent in premature findings. What we don't yet know about life in scientific terms stretches like an infinite dessert beyond the little that we do know, and most of what we know is reductionist, the study of discrete areas. We know just enough about nutrition, it seems, to confuse everyone. Once upon a time, for example, fats were fats. Now there are "good" fats and "bad" fats. We can be sure that there is much more to be learned, and "scientists" who draw sweeping dietary conclusions from what we happen to know at the moment are not doing their job.

We had dinner at the Hudson Street branch of Le Gamin. My roast chicken was delicious, but I was too interested in the conversation to be very assiduous about cutting it up. Perhaps Édouard will be good enough to remind me of the name of the very fine wine that the three of us drank two bottles of.

January 10, 2007

Just Saying

Remember when homosexuals in government were regarded as a threat to national security, because they could be blackmailed by secret agents into sharing classified documents?

Well, now we know how it really works. Homosexuals can blackmail the government into keeping their activities a secret. And they don't even have to ask. A report on the Foley scandal by Gail Sheehy and Judy Bachrach, in last month's Vanity Fair, shows a Congressional leadership determined not to take action against the creepy page predator - whom everybody on the Hill, it appears, knew was gay. There were complaints and fulminations behind closed doors. but Speaker Dennis Hastert appears to have kept a lid on it.

The sordid episode reminded me, as it must have reminded you, of all those American Roman Catholic bishops who made a habit of treating priestly pederasty as an "internal matter," in the name of protecting the apparent integrity of the Church. In Poland, the same mind-set has inspired a rather extensive cover-up of clergymen who collaborated with the secret police during the Communist regime. Many of the alleged collaborators have risen in the ranks; one of them, Stanislaw Wielgus, went all the way to the top of the Polish Church. Not for long, though. He announced his resignation at what to have been his consecration.*

Polish Catholics are divided. Conservatives rationalize the collaborative acts and complain that liberals are making a fuss about nothing. Liberals, of course, are sticklers for truth and transparency. Many Catholics feel doubly betrayed by the Church, just as they did in the United States. First, you go and do something wicked, then you cover it up. Or, rather: first, an individual does something wicked, and then the institution covers it up. But the "institution" is of course a fiction; in actuality, it is other individuals - bishops - who compound the problem by taking action to protect the reputation of the organization that they lead.

Did you know that the Roman Catholic Church is the world's oldest corporation? 

* Click here for a list of stories, many filed by Craig S Smith, in The New York Times.

November 03, 2006

In The New Yorker

There's a lot of good stuff in this week's New Yorker. The two pieces that stood out for me were John Seabrook's Profile of Will Wright, the designer of Raid on Bungling Bay, Sim City, The Sims, and Spore. Although Mr Wright never earned a college degree, he has filled a large corner of the computer world with food for thought disguised as fun. Mr Seabrook's portrait is complex and intriguing, but Mr Wright's world will never been my world. I jumped with sympathy at a remark of Joell Jones, a painter and Mr Wright's wife (from whom he has separated, it seems).

I think it frustrates Will that I don't play his games. Clearly, his games matter, on a deep level, to many people - take these online diaries people keep about their Sims. Wow. I don't know if they're avoiding their lives or learning about them. Me, I don't want to play a game to learn about myself.

The other piece was Steven Shapin's review of Steven Johnson's "vivid history," The Ghost Map: The story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic, and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World. At the heart of this book is a map drawn up John Snow, a Victorian physician, who was sure that the cause of cholera - which even he thought must be some sort of "miasma" - was waterborne. He was right, but people were slow to listen. The real engine of London's great sanitation schemes was, as Mr Shapin reports, the flush toilet, which vastly increased the amount of effluent produced by Londoners and eventually brought the Thames to a high reek. Mr Shapin's conclusion is trenchant.

Victorian London illustrates how much could be done with bad science; the continuing existence of cholera in the Third World shows that even good science is impotent without the resources, the institutions, and the will to act.

The most astonishing news emerges from a parenthesis in Hendrik Hertzberg's opening Comment in "The Talk of the Town" "(... the reported two-million-dollar salary conferred upon a Republican congressman who became the pharmaceutical industry's top lobbyist immediately after shepherding into law a bill forbidding the government to negotiate prices for prescription drugs.)" I'd like to know more about that; it's another item for the album that I've started to keep about the privatisation of public wealth. Although perfectly legal, it seems, the two-step strikes me as falling somewhere between letters of attainder and treason. It certainly keeps the government out of the free market! But then, Republicans aren't as ideological as they seem; bottom line, they're kleptocrats.

June 20, 2006

On Superheroes

In her 1965 essay, "The Imagination of Disaster," Susan Sontag took a look at science fiction films and analysed their formulas. The following insight has stayed with me over the years:

One gets the feeling, particularly in the Japanese films but not only there, that a mass trauma exists over the use of nuclear weapons and the possibility of future nuclear wars. Most of the science fiction films bear witness to this trauma, and, in a way, attempt to exorcise it.

I thought of this over the weekend, during which we watched both Spider-Man movies. Ms NOLA had recommended them, persuasively, to Kathleen, and I was so tired of watching uncongenial films that I put up no resistance, even though I don't go in for superheroes at all. Both films were better than I thought they'd be, but I still had plenty of cerebral RAM left over for wondering what anxieties the need for superheroes might express. The appeal of superheroes is obvious - indeed, that's part of the problem for me - but I could sense a need for them, too. A need for superheroes to be bodied forth in film, and for them to confront - what, exactly? What are we afraid of?

I quickly learned not to ask the question in the first person plural. Just as superheroes are solitary, so are the fans who dream about them, no matter how many are packed into the same theatre. What am I afraid of? What would I be afraid of if I were a normally healthy young man with a job that may or may not have ripened into a career? And I saw at once that what I would be afraid of would be the power of a superior, at any level, to array himself in all the resources of a large corporation in order to annihilate me in my utter defenselessness. There would nothing social in this fear; indeed, the fear would be intense to the extent that I felt alone, as young men often do and in fact are. It's important also to see that the villains are individual human beings, not "corporations." Corporations are fictitious persons, their identities - and their assets - operated by individual men and women. The corporation is simply a neutral superpower. It allows someone else to overpower me completely.

I was doubtless helped to these conclusions by the two Spider-Man pictures, for in both cases the villain is given unchecked access to the resources of a company run by Norman Osborn. Indeed, Norman Osborn is the first "victim" of this transformation, which he undergoes in a fit of recklessness that is even so not malignant. The transformation of Dr Otto Octavius in the second film is even more dramatic, because, unlike Osborn, Otto is loving and thoughtful at first. But his experiment misfires, too, putting him under a sort of portable house arrest. We can fairly say that both men are corrupted when they connect themselves directly to the corporation's power. Similarly, real-world corporate power is known to corrupt corporate officers; the Enron debacle shows what happens when there aren't any superheroes.

Corporate power and authority are wielded with whispers and strokes of pens. Superhero films dramatize corporate action by telescoping the power-at-a-distance nature of business and rendering its impact in visually violent terms. Superhero villains don't really want anything except what all businesses want: sales and clout. What sets the villains apart isn't so much the terrible damage that they wreak but their willingness not to play fair.

As regular readers know only too well, I could go on and on. But I think I'll stop right here, mindful of my unacquaintance with the superhero genre. And on.

May 08, 2006

Jane Jacobs: Cities and the Wealth of Nations

The death of Jane Jacobs prompted me to do something that I ought to have done at least upon the inauguration of the Bush Administration: to re-read Cities and the Wealth of Nations: Principles of Economic Life. Reading this book when it came out in 1984 was a moment of startling political clarification, for its challenge to traditional economics was instantly persuasive, and for the first time in my life I could conceive of a truly desirable civil arrangement. There is no doubt that I already shared Jacobs's preference for the small and open-ended to the large and controlled, as well as a dislike of large corporations. The latter is only implicit in Cities, but there is no way that its principles can be reconciled with the furtherance of business organizations that hire more than, say, 150 people. What Jacobs could only guess was the role that computers might play in making her dream of a world of city-states come true.

This will be the first of several pages on Cities and the Wealth of Nations. Some of them will discuss things that Jacobs actually writes, while other will tease out implications and obstacles. The book's last three chapters read like a springboard into...

Continue reading about Cities and the Wealth of Nations at Portico.

April 05, 2006

Corporate Stories

Be sure not to miss Malcolm Gladwell's summary of Charles Tilly's Why? in the current New Yorker. In "Here's Why," Mr Gladwell enumerates the four modes of explanation that Professor Tilly has distinguished. Each is as valuable in its own way as the others, and we make use of them according to the relationship that binds us (or not) to those to whom we're explaining something. First, there's convention, which is a form of dismissal. Second, there's story, which is just the opposite. Third, there's code; legal explanations are in code, which is why they're so frustrating to the parties involved in a lawsuit. Finally, there's expert analysis, which is pre-emptive and final, at least to the extent that the explainers are respected.

Corporations employ all four modes of explanation. Slogans quickly become conventions; warranties and "terms and conditions" are codes; instruction manuals appear to offer technical expertise. Corporate stories - ranging from advertisements to human resources - are not like normal stories, however, because everybody knows that they're not true. They can't be! How can an artificial person bind with a real one? How can an artificial person care about anything but itself? The only true story that corporations can tell is the one that they never do: "We're in this for the money."

Do the spokespersons who actually tell the stories on behalf of corporations expect to be believed? I don't think they really care. What a well-crafted corporate story does best is jamming the discourse. Creating an unanswerable position in the form of a story means that the time for explanations has passed, but without finality. When a corporation attributes an oil spill to a negligent ship's captain but insists that it is tightening its training and surveillance of ship's captains, that's that. Maybe it will follow through and maybe it won't. After enough oil spills, the time of explanation will be over in earnest, but meanwhile the corporation has bought time, time for the public's attention to drift on to something else.

It's the damage that corporate stories do to our language that bothers me.

November 28, 2005

The Noble Collection

The other day, a new catalogue surfaced among the many regulars. "The Noble Collection: Holiday 2005" offers "Gifts and Treasures for the Season." Before my eye found the Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter logos at the bottom of the cover, I was wondering if this was some sort of Disney Dark offering. The castle on the cover, basking in moonlight, looked vaguely like Cinderella's, but the mood said "Vlad the Impaler." I couldn't tell if the castle was drawn or real. It's real - "resin," no doubt. Thirteen inches tall and perhaps slightly more than that square, this model of Hogwarts is yours for $295.

What would you do with it? Where would you put it? How long would it interest you? (It has no moving parts.) If someone gave you one, perhaps as a "gift for the season," what would you think the donor was trying to say? And what do you think it's going to look like in ten years?

I'm sure that there are jillions of Harry Potter fans who think that this architectural digest is more wonderful than any real castle. For them, happily, there is the actual Neuschwanstein, in deepest Bavaria, to look forward to. In the meantime, I hope that their parents and guardians find a better use for the three C notes.

What I want for my birthday, however, is this magnificent Revolutionary Guillotine Cigar Cutter. It's not only charming, but edifying, as well. Every time you use it, you can meditate on some hapless aristocrat, dragged from a burning château in her nightclothes... Or whatever lights your cigar. The cigar cutter is a steel at $97.50. Stainless steel, that is. Aren't good razors always?

There's nothing new about bad taste. There's nothing new about expensive bad taste, either. But I think we've reached new heights of expensive, mass-produced bad taste. I really am curious about the quality, too. There's a cunning collapsible Batman desk clock made of - well, it doesn't say. It does have a "High Polish Finish," however, and at four inches (collapsed), it won't take up much houseroom. Fully expanded, it can be priced at ten dollars the inch. Do you think I should buy it and find out how long the high polish lasts?

May 12, 2005

The New Leviathan

The horns have been blaring for ten minutes. Although I can't see 87th Street, I know that that's where the trouble is. Right at the corner of Second Avenue, a Food Emporium truck is making deliveries to the supermarket, while, across the street, a truck is doing the same at The Corniche, an apartment building. Because traffic on 87th Street is westbound, drivers don't know that they've pulled into a temporary cul de sac until it's too late. If the last driver in is daring, he'll back out (very cautiously!) into First Avenue and make his escape, but this alternative is obviously not for everybody. If there were no side-street parking, this bottleneck, almost always a morning affair, wouldn't occur. The solution to the problem is very clear, but inertia and entitlement stand in the way. (Let me repeat for the umpteenth time - people can never believe this - that until 1950 it was illegal to park in the street overnight.)

Continue reading "The New Leviathan" »